The story bible. Characters
When people talk about animated series for television, they usually refer to the characters. It’s all about the characters, you hear people say. Certainly, when you think about the best known series, you think of their animated stars - Paddington Bear, Fireman Sam, Shaun the Sheep, etc. This is partly because most animated series are named after their lead characters, but also because this is the way we producers would have you think of our shows. Characters drive the merchandising.
Some of these characters are strong and clearly defined. Paddington Bear’s personality is central to the stories of the series. He is the most accident prone bear in existence. Put him in any situation, and he will instantly create a slapstick crisis. His naïve charm and other-worldliness mean that we can never feel badly towards him. Fireman Sam’s character is defined by his role. In the first two series, there was an attempt to make him eccentric, a do-it-yourself inventor. Current trends in political correctness mean that he has become almost faceless, a role rather than a personality. He is a representative of all firemen, rather than a real person.
Perfect characters are not very interesting. The best animation characters are those that have flaws. To mangle Tolstoy, All perfect characters are alike; each imperfect character is flawed in its own way. Daffy Duck is interesting because his is insane; we like Donald Duck because he is irascible and belligerent; Mr Magoo is as stubborn as he is shortsighted. I am deliberately quoting series from the past, because the protective nature of today’s broadcasting for children makes it difficult to create characters who deviate too much from the norm. The perceived need for role models often means that the most interesting characters do not get top billing. We are too often left with characters whose function is to play a role. Role playing is an important component of the toy industry, which sells playsets to children so they can re-enact the adventures of the show. So that you can’t mistake the roles being played, these often feature in the title – Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, Bob The Builder, etc.
Animation is not a medium that naturally lends itself to sophisticated expressions of emotion, and characterisation needs to be clear and simple. When I was an actor, we would do exercises in improvisation, where one person would be somewhat deaf, another near-sighted, and so on. Perhaps this would be politically unacceptable nowadays, but it threw up a wealth of misunderstandings that led to humour and drama. If you were writing a farce, this sort of exercise would be a perfect inspiration. I have always believed that animated characters work best if they have one defining characteristic. This might be shyness, stupidity, clumsiness, lack of tact, etc. If you are writing for children, this is especially the case. The danger is that you can fall too easily into a clichéd stereotype by doing this, and I would urge writers to find different and imaginative ways of expressing very simple characterisation. For example, in my experience, stupid people do not talk in a slow, deep, brain-dead voice. If anything they talk far too much, often in light and vapid tones. Evil people rarely have a loud, hollow laugh. They tend to be quiet and sinister.
As a writer, I do not think that it’s all about the characters. It’s all about the stories, and, of course, strong characters often make for good storylines.
I always think that it is dangerous to think only in terms of characters when you are beginning to develop a series. You need to think how they are going to drive the stories. This is what any prospective writer needs to know, and this is what you need to put in the story bible. This means you need to think about their relationships, with each other, with the viewer, and with the world they inhabit.
In creating the characters, you need to make sure that there is potential for conflict, which is the motor for all stories. This conflict may be with external forces, visiting antagonists, an unfriendly environment, etc, but stories will always work best if there is potential for conflict within the characters themselves. Television cop shows are a perfect example of this. Though the stories may be about fighting crime, it is the relationship between the cops, Sherlock and Watson, Morse and Lewis, etc, that usually provides the emotional grist of the show. You pair an analytical person with an intuitive one, a heavy drinker with a teetotaller, etc. You need to have the same sort of mix in animated shows. Make sure the shy character comes up against the one who lacks tact.
The descriptions of characters in a story bible need to be more than simple depictions of character, they need to point up where the potential conflicts might arise, and how they fit into the stories.
As well as personality, it is important to define cultural, habitual, or physical elements that might inspire storylines – He’s Italian and likes food, or She always wears a long coat that gets trapped in doors… etc.
Most story bibles will also include a list of the characters’ catchphrases. This is useful, of course, but it is difficult for any writer to imitate speech patterns they have never heard. However observant we are, and I always encourage writers to travel as much as possible by bus, because it is there that we hear speech patterns that are not our own, we all have our own vocabulary of idioms and speech rhythms. It is one of the main jobs of a story editor to adjust dialogue in scripts to make sure everyone is in character. I shall talk about the role of the story editor later.
Next week: The story bible: The world.